Popular: Why Being Liked is the Secret to Greater Success and Happiness by Mitch Prinstein

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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Mitch Prinstein is an expert on popularity, but he uses lots of other people’s experiments as well as his own to back up his claims in this next addition to the popular science / psychology genre. It’s very well-referenced and he makes sure he explains who the other researchers are and what they study in general. This gives confidence in a book that exists in an arena where not everything is as well-researched.

Prinstein’s basic tenets in this book are that popularity as such only starts to become a big issue in adolescence; how popular you are in your adolescence can form the basis of how popular you’ll be in later life; and being Unpopular can put you at risk of all sorts of health issues and later-life problems, both mental and physical. So far, so depressing. I’m not sure, but I’d like to bet that those of us who were in the less popular segment at school are probably the more likely ones to be picking this book up. So does Prinstein doom us to a life of the same status we had at school (shudder!)?

Not exactly (thank you!). Because it turns out there is more than one kind of popularity, and the ones all those Homecoming Queens and jocks had (this book does have something of a US bias, although the terminology is nothing you won’t find in a million novels and films and, as I will discuss later, he does make it multi-cultural, too) isn’t always going to carry through into brilliant times for the rest of their lives. So that’s OK, then. And there are also ways in which you can “fake it till you make it,” i.e. mimic the behaviours of the truly likeable until you become more so yourself.

There’s some interesting information about other cultures than America/UK, especially regarding the more communal cultures (such as Asian ones) and their perception of popularity. This makes the book well-rounded and able to accept multiple viewpoints on the topic, and makes it less able to be summarised in two sentences, as the most simplistic pop psych books can end up being.

I did flinch slightly at the idea posited early that popularity – or the lack of it – can actually change one’s DNA: this turned out to relate to a slightly complicated scientific idea about the cells in our body responding to the stress of unpopularity and conflict by “turning on” inflammation in cells throughout our body and sometimes turning off resistance to infection. Prinstein explains this by harking back to our “original” selves, in small nomadic communities, where an outcast had less need for infection protection if they weren’t in touch with too many people (this hangover from the past explaining why now when someone’s been through a break-up or similar they become more sensitive to catching cold). He posits that the ability to be popular is similarly rooted in these ages past, when it was important to work as a group and share tools and resources.

Throughout the book, useful slightly simplified versions of people are used in case studies that look a bit obvious when you first read them but are actually extremely valuable. Placing people into categories based on popularity (or lack of) and aggression (or lack of), these case studies make very clear how people’s behaviours affect their popularity in groups. Here it does become a little worrying that the way we are in our first groups, in primary school, repeats itself again and again as we go through other groups, even when we’re taken away from our peer group and somehow re-set. Can we escape our destiny?

After all the science and theory about popularity, school and that school-like feeling when we join a club or a workplace and different definitions of and perceptions of popularity, the last part of the book goes into exactly how “being popular” works, being careful to emphasise that there is a lot we can do to gain the “right” kind of popularity. This, again, is backed up with research and references, so doesn’t feel like a self-help book bolted on to a scientific one. There’s also a lot for parents: how to help your child be more popular – should you in fact do this – when should you hover and help and when should you leave well alone, and these points will apply to anyone who spends time with a particular child as well as their direct relatives.

In summary: the theory that one’s popularity is rooted in one’s teenage years can be devastating for the less popular; however, the author discusses ways in which one can work to be more likeable and gain popularity, so it’s ultimately a positive book.

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Liz Dexter finds her book review blog at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home to be as popular as she would like it to be; she makes an attempt to be likeable when she ventures out from her solitary life as an editor and transcriber. She has managed to get herself married and have a group of good friends, so she can’t be that bad, can she?

Mitch Prinstein, Popular: Why Being Liked is the Secret to Greater Success and Happiness (Penguin Random House UK, 2017). 9781785040535, 288 pp., ill. Hardback.

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